After years in the wings, independent voters take center stage in Texas in 2020

For the better part of the last two decades of Texas elections, political independents were, if not irrelevant, at least a pretty distant thought in handicapping election outcomes. The increased level of competition in races, both statewide, but especially down ballot in 2018, the consistently tight margins in polling on the presidential race in Texas, and the inherent unpredictability of independents as a group have suddenly made them the focus of both campaigns and those who prognosticate about them. That unpredictability makes it very tough to anticipate their impact on this, or any, election. But as polling shows a large group of them soured on Donald Trump, the preferences of independents now loom large over the 2020 contests in Texas.

For those who focus on the historical arc of partisan competition in Texas politics, it’s hard not to cast independents as somewhere between the ultimate anti-heroes and a group of extras and bit players suddenly thrust into the spotlight in the drama of 2020. Independents are those voters who, asked if they tend to identify as a Democrat or Republican, say neither, and when asked in a follow-up question if they lean towards either of the two parties, again reject both major parties. In UT/TT polling, this group has averaged 11.2% of the overall electorate over 16 polls conducted between February of 2016 and October of 2020. Some definitions of independents estimate their percentage of voters as closer to 30%, but this treats those independents who say that they lean towards the Democratic or Republican parties as independent, when we know from decades of research that these so-called “independent-leaners” behave more like strong partisans than “true independents.”

In a political world dominated by increasingly strong partisan political identities associated with the positions, brands, and personalities of the major parties, along with a commensurate antagonism towards the other party, academic research and poll after poll reveal independents largely as inattentive to politics and, not surprisingly, generally unengaged and uninterested. For example, while everyone is likely to overstate their civic-minded intentions, the gap between partisans and independents shows the latter setting a low bar for enthusiasm. Asked how enthusiastic they are about voting in the upcoming election in October UT/TT polling, 58% of Republicans, 50% of Democrats, but only 24% of independents said that they were “extremely enthusiastic.” Asked their opinion on major issues of the day, their lack of opinion relative to partisans is notable: approximately one in four independents, compared to one in ten partisans, have no opinion on whether we should maintain our current health insurance system, whether Texans should, or should not, be allowed to vote by mail, or whether the Senate should vote on President Trump’s most recent nominee to the Supreme Court, among many other examples.

In Texas, this has meant a group of sometimes-voters who, when they do show up to the polls, largely reflect the historically conservative impulses of the state’s political culture. For example, a plurality of independents support deporting all undocumented immigrants from the United States immediately, identify as pro-life, and think that the recent attention paid to the treatment of Black people by police will make race relations worse.

The conservative tilt of independents as a group manifests in elections as a tendency to lean in a Republican direction in the sorted and polarized political universe of late 20th and early 21st century Texas. Thus in electoral environments in which Republicans could be expected to routinely win statewide races by ten points or more, and sometimes by as much as 20 points (as in Greg Abbott’s 2014 election as governor), Republicans could largely take for granted their advantage in the preferences of independent voters. Democrats, nowhere near parity with the GOP in turning out their own partisans, have been forced to focus more on their relation to those voters. This focus resulted in an understandable preoccupation with their perpetual effort to reconcile the state and the party's comparative moderation in light of a national Democratic Party growing more progressive at the behest of its ever-restive (and expanding, as it turned out) progressive base. The ideological movement inside the party meant that Democratic candidates had higher priorities than appealing to independents when it came to deploying their scarce resources.

This status quo has changed in two critical ways in 2020.

First, the state has become more competitive between Democrats and Republicans during the Trump presidency. While campaigns’ first priority remains identifying their partisans, targeting them for contact, and banking their votes, the increased partisan parity in a growing number of competitive Congressional and state legislative districts, especially in the Texas House along with narrower win margins for congressional and state legislative incumbents, has increased the importance of potential independent votes. For example, in competitive statehouse races (i.e. races with at least a Democratic and Republican candidate), 65% of the two party vote went to Republican candidates in 2014, but only 56% in 2016 and 2018. Both parties are getting more voters to show up, but Democrats have been growing their vote totals faster – bringing them closer to turnout parity with the Texas GOP. This near-parity in turning out partisans, in turn, increases the value of appealing to voters unaffiliated with either party. 

Second, independents themselves appear to have adopted a different posture in 2020 than what polling has shown in previous, recent Texas elections. They appear both less tied to their traditional, conservative political leanings, and perhaps at least as, if not more, reactive to the Republican occupant of the White House as they were to the most recent Democratic one. In both cases, the reactions settled in net-negative territory in the week before the presidential election.

Presidential Disapproval among Texas Independents (University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling)

Survey Overall Disapproval Disapproving Strongly
October 2012, Barack Obama (First Term) 41% 29%
October 2016, Barack Obama (Second Term) 53% 44%
October 2020, Donald Trump (First Term) 53% 42%

The apparent decay of support for Trump among independents may also give them a large role in the increasing number of competitive down ballot races in Texas by making them more likely voter targets for Democratic campaigns. The UT/TT Poll has measured the president’s job approval 13 times since his taking office, and among independents, the trend is unmistakable: Trump’s average approval rating was 47% in 2017, dropping to 44% in 2018, remaining at 44% in 2019, and then dropping to 34% in 2020. Disapproval has increased from 38% to 49% over the same time period, leading to declining average net approval ratings among independents during each year of the Trump presidency, from +9 (‘17), to +2 (‘18), +2 (‘19), and -15 (‘20). In the most recent UT/TT poll, conducted in late September and early October on the eve of early voting, 53% of independents disapproved of the job Trump is doing, while only 31% say that they approve (-22).

Loading chart...
PollApproveDisapproveNeither/Don't know
February 201739%37%24%
June 201747%41%11%
October 201755%35%10%
February 201849%37%13%
June 201843%45%12%
October 201839%43%17%
February 201946%37%17%
June 201946%39%15%
October 201941%51%8%
February 202036%47%17%
April 202034%47%18%
June 202036%50%14%
October 202031%53%15%

The scope of Trump’s decay in support among independents poses a problem for Republican candidates. In October 2016 UT/TT polling, Trump led Hillary Clinton among independent voters 47% to 19%. In that same poll, independents preferred the Republican Congressional candidate over the Democratic candidate by more than a 2 to 1 margin, 32% to 14% (the other 55% said either “neither” or “don’t know” — a reminder about the most prominent feature of independents: lack of engagement). In October 2018 UT/TT polling, independents again preferred Republican over Democratic candidates for Congress (55% to 45%), Attorney General (38% to 27%), Lieutenant Governor (50% to 27%), and Governor (59% to 30%). However, in the Senate race, Beto O’Rourke led Ted Cruz among independents 51% to 39%. While this was only one factor in O’Rourke’s narrower margin with Cruz, it was no doubt an important factor in narrowing the margin in that particular race down to 2.5 points.

Preferences of Independent Voters (University of Texas / Texas Tribune Polling)
Survey Election Independents Preferring Republican Candidate Independents Preferring Democratic Candidate
October  2016 President 47% 19%
October  2016 Congress 32% 14%
October  2018 Governor 59% 30%
October  2018 Lieutenant Governor 50% 27%
October  2018 Attorney General 38% 27%
October  2018 U.S. Senate 39% 51%
October 2020 President 37% 45%
October 2020 U.S. Senate 33% 50%
October 2020 Congress 28% 45%
October 2020 Texas Legislature 27% 48%

Fast forward two years and the preferences of independent voters appear to have shifted in a more dramatic fashion that resembles the 2018 senate race. In the presidential contest, given the data provided on job approval, it shouldn’t surprise to find Joe Biden leading among independents 45% to 37%. But M.J. Hegar is also leading incumbent Senator John Cornyn among independents in their contest by even more, 50% to 33%. Independents also expressed a preference for the Democratic over the Republican candidates for Congress (45% to 28%) and the Texas Legislature (48% to 27%). (It’s worth noting given the gold rush of pollsters to Texas this year that other public polls look broadly similar. In the much-noticed Quinnipiac University poll conducted October 16-19 that found Biden and Trump tied at 47% each on the trial ballot, Biden led Trump 50%-39% among independents.)

So what was once a reliably Republican leaning group looks anything but in 2020.

Some back of the envelope math clarifies how independents have become more important in the 2020 election. Trump won Texas in 2016 by approximately 9 percentage points, 52% to 43%. If approximately 10% of the electorate was made up of political independents who preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton in proportions similar to our polling, then we can ask ourselves what his margin would have been under the current conditions, all else equal.

Back of the Envelope: Estimating the Potential Impact of Independents' Changing Preferences
    If independents make up __% of the electorate....
  Percentage Point Change in Support Among Independents, 2016 to 2020 (University of Texas/Texas Tribune Polling) 5% 10% 15% 20% 30%
Trump -10 -0.5 points -1 point -1.5 points -2 points -3 points
Biden +30 +1.5 points +3 points +4.5 points +6 points +9 points
  Net Effect (all else equal): Biden +2 Biden +4 Biden +6 Biden +8 Biden +12

If we assume that the proportions of partisans and independents in the 2020 poll hold approximately, a shift in Trump’s share of independents from 47% to 37% would decrease his total share of the vote by approximately 1 point (10% of the 10% of voters who are independent). Biden increasing his vote share among independents from Clinton’s 19% in the October 2016 UT/TT poll to approximately 50%, would translate to a 3-point gain (31% of the 10% of voters who are independent), producing an overall shift in the outcome by 4 points in Biden’s direction (Trump’s lost point added to Biden’s 3 gained), from the 9-point margin between Trump and Clinton in the final election result to a 5-point margin (which is actually exactly what we showed in the October UT/TT poll).

Three big caveats qualify this rough ciphering — there are a lot conditions being held equal. 

First, it assumes partisan turnout in 2020 comparable to 2016, something that the large increase in early voting so far tells us is not a safe assumption. Turnout may be up equally for all partisan groups, but we don’t know if that’s the case yet, though there is no lack of reading the tea leaves of early voting turnout patterns. Second, the polling for this exercise in speculation was in both cases a few weeks out from the election, rather than an accounting of actual voting by partisans and independents, which is difficult if not impossible to do in Texas where voters don’t register their party affiliation. (And exit polls generally ask voters about their party identification using a method that lumps in “leaners” with true independents.) Third, independents by their very nature are at best more likely to be open to late influences, at worst mercurial in their political preferences.

Texas becoming a competitive state in 2020 implies that partisans of both sides can be mobilized to vote in roughly equal proportions for national elections, making the distribution of support among independents potentially critical. The top of the ballot races in 2018 and 2020 appear to be trial runs for a newly competitive political universe in Texas in which independents exert more gravity than they have for decades. The extent of this competition won't be clear until after this election, and it’s durability will be put to a significant stress test in Texas in 2022, especially if Democrats win the White House week after next. But if a more competitive Texas does look like the new normal after all the votes are finally cast and counted in 2020, independents will continue to weigh heavily in what is shaping up to be a critical election for statewide offices in 2022.